Within weeks of her violent murder in 1964, Kitty Genovese had become synonymous with a whole condition of human behavior. Genovese Syndrome, the act of consciously ignoring a person in peril, is still applied as a descriptor to events the world over. Recent examples include the Trayvon Martin shooting and the refugee crisis in Europe. And her life has been summed up by the main beats of a front page New York Times story that made her death infamous: 38 people in a Queens apartment saw Kitty being stabbed on the street in three separate attacks over the course of 45 minutes — and did absolutely nothing.
The Times, as its own editorial board has admitted in five decades of mea culpas, knew the less sensationalistic truth of Genovese’s killing but printed the legend. While there was testimony that backed up the effect of “bystander apathy,” facts were also omitted so not to ruin the narrative. Individuals did call the police; one neighbor cradled Genovese in her arms as she died. The Witness, a remarkably intimate attempt to reach clarity and catharsis in the Genovese saga, is like a fascinating longform magazine article that feels like a physical journey through history and myth.
Director James Solomon began filming the documentary over a decade ago, after initially intending to write a screenplay about Genovese, and he applies a true filmmaker eye, evident in several gracefully line-drawn animated sequences. And filmmaker instincts: Knowing a great character when he sees one, Solomon hands the wheel to Bill Genovese, Kitty’s brother, who was 16 when she died. (The film’s only minor flaw is its overreliance on Bill’s voiceover narration.) Onscreen for the bulk of the film, Bill is something of a metaphor himself — literally cut in half by his sister’s death. He enlisted in the Marines as a reaction to the human apathy that her murder seemed to confirm and lost both his legs in Vietnam. The film’s title takes on a haunting irony once you realize that it refers to Bill, who was not an onlooker to Kitty’s killing, but to the world in which her name was deformed and gained its tragic legend.
Even if you’re familiar with debunked details of her murder, moments in the film have the capacity to startle. A woman stares in mouth-gaped shock when Bill tells her that she’s one of the Times’ “38.” A man notes the number of Holocaust survivors living in the apartment building. “That type of a person might not want to get involved with the authorities,” he says, “because of what happened with the Nazis.” After an interview rejection from Winston Moseley, Kitty’s now-deceased killer, Bill engages in an extraordinary conversation with Moseley’s son, a reverend, who suspects that Bill is a member of the notorious Genovese crime family. In a touching sequence that’s animated because she did not want to appear on camera, Bill speaks affectionately with a woman named Mary Ann Zielonko. She was Kitty’s lover — and Bill apologizes on behalf of his family for their disaffection.
But the powerful thrust of the film comes from its critique of the media. The famed New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal defends the paper’s hyperbole, and at one point refers to the article as a jewel that changes color as you look at it from different directions. 60 Minutes journalist Mike Wallace says, “It’s a fascinating, troubling story — and undoubtedly sold newspapers.” Another icon of New York reporting, Gabe Pressman, calls the piece “abhorrent to anyone who is interested in the truth.” And though Rosenthal, who died in 2006, comes off as the smuggest of the film’s talking heads, the movie gives credence to his main thesis about Kitty Genovese — that her death had an enormous cultural impact, even if the details of it were fabricated for effect. He’s correct, though for the opposite reason. The Witness suggests that we are just as willing to turn our backs on history as a woman screaming in the street. A-